“When do you start to write your paper? How do you begin?”
For many researchers, writing a paper is the daunting task that must be undertaken once they have completed the ‘real work’ of performing experiments and collecting data. But as Nature Plants’ Chris Surridge puts it: “Publication… is the way you get to tell the world what you’ve done and what you think it means.”
The skill of writing a paper is an essential one—but when and how should you begin to write? When this question was posted on the Nature Masterclasses online discussion thread, over 160 commenters got involved in the debate.
The consensus was that writing needs to be considered as early as possible in the process—not just after the ‘real work’ is complete.
Here are some comments from participants posted to the Nature Masterclasses online course in ‘Scientific Writing and Publishing’:
“I usually start the main writing process after achieving some publishable results (ie gathering sufficient data and arriving at an interesting/novel conclusions). However, I observed it usually takes two months in writing a full draft manuscript, and this tend to slow down the process of publishing a good paper on time. I hope to inculcate the idea of writing in the early stages of my experiments in my subsequent works.”
“I recommend to my students to begin writing their paper (in their head at first) from the beginning of a project. …Early in my career, students would do many experiments, generate data to support a hypothesis but, when it came to writing the paper, most of the experiments were not in a publishable format and new experiments, designed to generate figures in a paper, would need to be done. Thus, thinking about each of your experiments as generating a figure helps to guide you to design the experiment properly from the beginning.”
“I started writing after I thought I had a more or less complete story. However, I agree with Nature’s assessment that I should have written earlier. I did several outlines at earlier stages that did help inform my experiments….
“Everyone has their own favoured approach to writing, so there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer that applies to everyone,” comments Darren Burgess, Senior Editor at Nature Reviews Genetic in the ‘Ask Our Editors’ area on the Nature Masterclasses site. “That being said, there are some guidelines that will help scientists to write a good paper with relatively little stress. First and foremost is that good planning is really helpful, both to you as you write, and to your audience of editors and readers. If your writing is unplanned and reads more like a stream of consciousness, it will be almost impossible to do full justice to your work…”
Understanding how to get published
Of course, good planning and judging when to start writing is only one of many considerations for writing and publishing papers.
Researchers want to know how to get the most out of the writing process, how the manuscript selection process works, and what happens after publication.
Yet many are not formally trained in these important skills; learning instead from experience, from mentors and colleagues (and, often, from the school of hard knocks!).
An online training solution
Now available to subscribing institutions, the online course in Scientific Writing and Publishing from Nature Masterclasses was developed by 36 editors from over 20 different Nature journals and provides a comprehensive overview of the writing and publishing process.
Once a paper is written, the next step is submission and publication, and the course aims to de-mystify this process. Users will receive guidance on selecting an appropriate journal for their work, and learn more about how decisions are made at journals and what happens to the paper in the stages from submission through to publication.
The Scientific Writing and Publishing online course aims to offer a broad overview of the writing and publishing process. Beginning with the fundamentals of what makes a great paper, the course then looks at writing style, focussing on accuracy, brevity and clarity. Each section of a scientific paper is then analysed, and tips offered, from avoiding using puns in a paper’s title, to understanding how to correctly label figures in the results section.
For early career researchers and their mentors
Whether you are a mentor to early career researchers or at the beginning of your own research career, access to the Nature Masterclasses online training provides an excellent foundation for skills training, with first-hand insight into writing techniques, publishing processes and ethics from editors at the top-tier Nature series of journals.
And, as you can see from the comments above, it has certainly inspired some researchers to reflect on their practices and adjust their approach to writing papers.
On-demand and interactive
There is also clear focus on getting involved ‘beyond the course’: Participants receive a digest of other users’ comments, and interesting discussion topics are posted regularly on the site. The growing community allows researchers to network with and learn from peers internationally.
A blended learning solution
The online programme provides an excellent blended learning addition to the already-popular face-to-face Nature Masterclasses workshops, delivered globally by Nature journal editors since 2011.
The content of the online course has been shaped by researchers’ feedback from the workshops. In return, Nature Masterclasses has helped to shape a number of researchers’ approach to writing papers – not least by encouraging them to start writing up their work a little bit earlier in the process.
Enjoy a free sample
The Nature Masterclasses online training is a fantastic induction tool for institutions to use for a new cohort of post docs or new staff members. It is also a brilliant troubleshooting tool for researchers at any stage of the writing and publishing process.
For an institution, the online training provides the tools and helps define the core ambition of wanting to produce high quality research that will make an impact.